Words and the Word: Book Review
Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory, eds. David G. Firth, and Jamie A. Grant, (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008). Available at IVP
Words and the Word, as the subtitle suggests is a book about “Explorations in biblical interpretation and literary theory.” This book seeks to explain and demonstrate the significance of different literary approaches to the Bible. It argues for a well-rounded, in-depth approach to bible study from an evangelical point of view and engages with some of the techniques employed by practitioners of literary theory. If all of this sounds a little “heady,” it is, so be forewarned. However, there is much of practical insight as well.
Words and the Word is divided into two parts. Part 1 is entitled “General issues,” and consists of two articles that provide an overall introduction to the subject from slightly different perspectives. They are entitled: “Literary theory and biblical interpretation,” and “A structural-historical approach to exegesis of the Old Testament.” Part 2 takes a look at some of the “specific approaches” utilized in literary studies. These include: “Speech-act theory,” “Genre criticism,” “Ambiguity,” “Poetics,” “Rhetoric,” and “Discourse analysis.”
Can We Discover the Meaning of the Word by its Words?
In the introductory article to Part 1, Grant R. Osborne argues that “Every aspect of the hermeneutical process is immersed in literary theory because every part of Scripture is literature” (p. 48). Osborne states that the goal of literary interpretation is the meaning of the text. However, modern literary approaches have suggested different means by which that meaning is derived. Osborne argues against the post-structuralist approach which contends that meaning resides in the reader, rather than in what the author intended. The danger with this approach is that the text has no inherent meaning, but it means whatever a particular reader thinks it means. Osborne advocates a 3-pronged approach which includes the author who produced the text, the text itself as a historical document which is open to historical analysis, and the reader who studies and interprets the text using historical and grammatical methods to arrive at the meaning. Through this approach Osborne believes that “the most likely meaning of a text can be discovered” (p. 48). This might seem like an argument that only concerns scholars and intellectuals, and therefore irrelevant to the average person studying the Bible, but actually there is a point here for everyone. At times many Bible students are guilty of the approach “I think this passage means X,” without doing a proper study of the passage. The practical result of this approach (“this is what it means to me”) is no different from the intellectual who uses complex arguments to justify such an approach. Therefore, Osborne’s arguments need to be heard by evangelicals.
Beyond the theoretical issues, Osborne gives some practical examples of the value of a literary approach, focusing his examples on the Gospels. For example, Osborne notes that the Gospel of John “is well known for using synonyms theologically.” We have all heard the interpretation that Peter’s use of phileo (brotherly love) as opposed to Jesus’ use of agape (divine love) is significant. But Osborne argues the significance does not lie in the change of verbs because this is something that John frequently does in the Gospel. Therefore, one who makes this the point of the story actually misses John’s real message (pp. 32-33).
In the second article of Part 1 S. N. Snyman insists that in a literary approach to Scripture, one cannot ignore the historical dimension, but must include it in any analysis of the text. Basically, Snyman focuses on exegesis: what it is; why it is important; and how to do it.
Investigating and Illustrating Various Types of Literary Approaches
Rather than summarize each chapter of Part 2, I will comment on a few of the methods and what I found particularly helpful. Firth’s chapter on “Ambiguity” in Scripture is very insightful. . Firth identifies 3 different ways in which we may encounter ambiguity. First, is ambiguity that is intended by the author. Second is what I would call “accidental ambiguity.” This is when a word or phrase might have more than one interpretation in a context, but the ambiguity was not intended by the author. For example, it is not clear in 1 Samuel 16:21 whether Saul loves David or David loves Saul. The third kind concerns ambiguity on the reader’s part, which may be caused by a number of factors, including historical distance from the event being described, lack of understanding the culture, etc. Firth clarifies that the type of ambiguity he is focusing on is the first kind which involves an author’s intentional use of ambiguity. Next Firth discusses the theory and definition of ambiguity as found in the work of William Empson and refines Empson’s 7 types of ambiguity to 5. These types include: 1) Details effective in multiple ways; 2) Multiple possibilities with a single resolution; 3) Simultaneous use of unconnected meanings; 4) Alternative meanings combine to clarify author’s intention; and 5) Apparent contradictions. A list of these types of ambiguity is indeed vague so Firth pursues a definition and seeks to illustrate each type from Scripture. He concludes with a marvelous example from 1 Samuel demonstrating how the author uses ambiguity to highlight Saul’s character flaws. This was my favorite chapter in the book and was extremely helpful in demonstrating how biblical authors might use ambiguity as a literary technique in communicating a message.
The chapter entitled “Poetics” takes a look at the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Psalms (a brief paragraph at the end of the chapter is also dedicated to poetry in the NT). In this chapter author, Jamie A. Grant. looks at some of the new developments in the study of the poetic literature of the Bible. In particular, he advocates taking a more holistic approach to the Book of Psalms by noting how the book is structured. We have tended to interpret each psalm individually, but Grant notes that the Book of Psalms is broken down into 5 different “books” by the biblical editors. He also points out that certain psalms are grouped together by themes (such as the Songs of Ascent–Ps. 120-134). Becoming aware of these groupings can enable one to see how these psalms interact with each other. Furthermore, noticing the structure of a section of psalms may also reveal insights that otherwise go unnoticed. For example, Grant points out that Psalms 15-24 are arranged chiastically. Psalm 19, a psalm about the Law, is the center point of the chiasm which suggests its significance.
The last chapter of Words and the Word, looks at “Discourse Analysis.” Discourse analysis involves using all of the techniques and approaches discussed in this book, plus more. Therefore, this forms a fitting conclusion to the book. The author, Terrance R. Wardlaw Jr., provides two examples of discourse analysis; one from the OT (Exodus 15:22-27) and the other from the NT (Matt. 5:1-12), illustrating the value of various approaches. Wardlaw’s examples are very helpful in illuminating the process of discourse analysis, and they also provide an insightful look at these two texts.
Evaluation of Words and the Word
There is a lot to learn from Words and the Word. However, one of the shortcomings of the articles that comprise this book is that the discussion of theory can often be very abstract. To one who is not familiar with these approaches, or who has problems thinking abstractly, this can be a challenge. Illustrations of the various approaches are the saving grace of this book. However, some authors achieve this success better than others in my opinion. I found a few of the chapters to be difficult wading, nearly drowning me in theory without practical application. This book is definitely not for the average Bible reader. It is suited more for the advanced student or scholar. I would not even recommend it for most pastors. Although there are many valuable insights, and even some sermon fodder here, the average pastor is probably too busy to wade through all of the abstract discussion to benefit much. Although Words and the Word seeks to fill the gap between more indepth discussions of literary theory and introductory Bible study, it strongly leans in the direction of the more advanced student. Therefore I would recommend it to those who have a basic familiarity with literary approaches and want to go deeper, but not to the average student of the Bible. These approaches are important and yield valuable insights, but a book is still needed that can communicate these ideas in a less complicated more “learner friendly” manner.
(I would like to thank IVP for this copy of Words and the Word, in exchange for an unbiased review.)